It's something we do to job applicants, first dates, former lovers and the quiet co-worker in the next cubicle. The practice of "googling" others for professional reasons or out of personal curiosity is so ubiquitous that the name of the popular Internet search engine has turned into a verb. In healthcare, patients often head online for diagnoses, drug information and details about their doctors. But do professional standards prevent physicians from doing the same to patients?
The authors of a new paper in the Journal of General Internal Medicine write that sometimes, the practice is acceptable. Most other times, in their opinion, it isn't. They hope their paper sparks conversation among colleagues and the American Medical Association about the possibility of guidelines for providers in the digital age, one in which most medical students can't remember a world without search engines.
"The motivation is to protect patients and prevent harm," said Maria Baker, a Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute genetics counselor.
Her paper lists 10 situations when physicians are justified in "googling" patients – for example, when they have a duty to warn of possible harm, if patient's story seem improbable, if information from other professionals calls a patient's story into question, if there are suspicions of abuse or concerns of suicide risk.
"There is something worth protecting in the physician-patient relationship," said co-author Daniel George, an assistant professor in Medical Humanities at Penn State University College of Medicine. While the AMA has issued guidelines regarding physician professionalism and social media, George calls patient-targeted web searches a "blind spot" among providers.